Summary - democracy was methodically dismembered in Tunisia (amend constitution, inbreed judges).
From WaPo on Feb 28, 2023.
For about a decade, Tunisia was talked about as a success story. Not because of what it had already achieved after overthrowing a despot and embracing multiparty democracy, but because of the ideals that continued to animate the small North African nation as it fitfully worked toward consolidating that democracy. Tunisia was the first blossom of the 2011 Arab Spring — and the only bloom to have not sadly withered on the vine as pro-democracy uprisings gave way to civil wars and brutal autocratic counterrevolutions around the region.
Now, Tunisia’s fledgling democracy looks finished, while the country itself is entering a dark phase of authoritarian consolidation. Far from a unique success, it has become yet another cautionary tale in a region full of false dawns and dashed hopes. And it’s all happening with the de facto acquiescence of the Biden administration and its Western counterparts.
In July 2021, Tunisian President Kais Saied embarked on a slow-motion coup, dismissing his prime minister, suspending parliament and enacting emergency protocols that allowed him to rule by decree. In 2022, Saied threw out the post-dictatorship constitution forged in 2014 and pushed through a new one that, among other things, gave the president the ultimate authority to appoint judges. His campaign to bend the judiciary to his will accelerated thereafter, with dozens of judges and prosecutors dismissed as part of an amorphous “anti-corruption” campaign.
Saied justified his actions as a bid to clean up alleged graft and shake up a sclerotic, ineffectual political scene, which was marred by infighting and increasingly unpopular among ordinary Tunisians. But Saied’s critics feared one-man rule was on the horizon, and they seem to have been proven right.
“We stood up and tried to deliver as much as we [could],” Said Ferjani, a prominent politician from Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party, told my colleagues last summer. “At the end of the day now, the choice is between accepting dictatorship and bowing down to it, or to stand up against it and fight it … in a civil way.” On Monday, news emerged that Ferjani had been arrested as part of a wider crackdown.
Elections in December and at the end of last month delivered Tunisia a new parliament, but voter participation was barely above 10 percent. Analysts said the low turnout was a nadir in Tunisia’s democratic transition and reflected a deeper sense of despair and disenchantment in a society ravaged by economic crises that were worsened by the pandemic. In this context, authorities have over the past month carried out a slew of arrests, rounding up politicians, business leaders and journalists.
“There has been a systematic dismantling of checks and balances. Individuals are being arrested without any legal foundations, without even being informed of the reasons of their arrest or the charges against them,” Said Benarbia of the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists recently told Al-Monitor’s Amberin Zaman. “Without a strong reaction internally and externally, the government is unlikely to reverse course.”
Externally, though, there has not been a strong reaction. While it grandstands over freedom and democracy in Ukraine, the Biden administration has, at best, issued periodic statements voicing “concern” for events transpiring in Tunisia. It has done little to mobilize any international response in defense of the country’s ailing democracy and welcomed the widely derided votes for a rubber-stamp Tunisian parliament as “an essential initial step” for a democratic restoration. The European Union’s response has not been any tougher.
In December, Saied even had a photo op with President Biden during a summit of African nations in Washington. He came to The Washington Post’s office and, in a meeting with reporters and members of the editorial board, rejected criticisms of democratic-backsliding on his watch. “There are so many enemies of democracy in Tunisia who want to do everything they can to torpedo the country’s democratic and social life from within,” he said.
The Biden administration muddled through months of Saied’s centralization of power and control, following in the footsteps of previous U.S. administrations that found accommodation with Arab strongmen out of perceived strategic necessity.
Sharan Grewal of the Brookings Institution argued that thinking is wrong: “The administration might find it tempting to try to return to ‘business as usual’ and prioritize its strategic interests in Tunisia,” he recently wrote. “Yet the Biden administration must recognize that there will be no business as usual with Saied, whose vision — indicated in both his public statements and the preamble of the new constitution — is to break from Tunisia’s historic alliance with the West and pursue instead a non-aligned stance.”
The main lever the West may have over Saied, Grewal argued, is a planned International Monetary Fund loan to the debt-ridden nation that’s still under negotiation.
This past week, Saied displayed another worrying dimension to his rule: Racism. Taking a page from the white nationalist playbook, he warned of a long-running plot to change Tunisia’s demographic composition through migration from sub-Saharan Africa, a conspiratorial charge that echoed the racist “great replacement” theory put forward by elements of the West’s far right. His rhetoric has been accompanied by arrests of (and attacks on) Black people in the country.
“Coupled with a campaign of widespread arrests of migrants, the escalating rhetoric from the presidential palace in the majority-Arab country has sparked fear among Black citizens and immigrants alike of street violence or arbitrary arrest, in a country with a judiciary that is now largely under the control of the president,” wrote my colleague Claire Parker.
The search for the scapegoat has a depressingly obvious cause: “As he has consolidated power in his own hands, he has also consolidated responsibility for the country’s failing economy and public services, rising prices and food shortages, and the general sense of precarity that pervades Tunisian life,” wrote Erin Clare Brown in New Lines magazine. Saied needed new villains to blame.
Rather than pushing Tunisia’s democratic journey forward, Saied has taken the country back to square one, analysts say. “In 1987, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali organized a coup in order to become president. Back then, he promised to install democracy in the country before launching a massive prosecution campaign against his political opponents just months later,” wrote Amine Snoussi, a Tunis-based political commentator. “Two years later, Ben Ali was the only legal presidential candidate and started a 23-year reign of brutal dictatorship.”